The Paradox of Mindfulness

Photo: Lagos, Portugal

Photo: Lagos, Portugal

“In mindfulness one is not only restful and happy, but alert and awake. Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” 

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

It’s been a little over three years since I first heard about mindfulness and being present to the moment. It started with a chance reading of “The Power of Now,” and since finishing that book I’ve not only read several other books on the topic but tried to make mindfulness the basis of my life as well.

I was an emotional mess before I discovered mindfulness. While I had good days every now and then, anger and sadness were my primary emotional states. I was prone to bouts of rage (not so great when mixed with all the drinking I was doing in college), prolonged stretches of unexplainable sadness, and tons of social anxiety.

Those emotions weren’t the main issue, though. The real problem was that I had almost zero awareness of why I was feeling them. I could identify the surface level causes of my anger and sadness, such as a rude comment somebody made or a breakup I was going through, but that knowledge did nothing to stop the emotions from consuming me.

Practicing mindfulness and meditation has helped me learn to observe my thoughts and emotions from a distance, thus giving me the ability to understand why I’m feeling them. I’ve also noticed a change in the intensity of my emotions. Whereas in the past every little thing I felt seemed so visceral that it ended up dictating my actions, there is now a feeling of hollowness that pervades many of my negative emotions. I’m guessing this is a result of watching my thoughts and emotions come and go during meditation. The realization of their impermanence seems to have removed some of their power.

But despite these positive changes, I still find myself struggling to practice mindfulness consistently. Why is that?

I think a big part of it is fear. The idea of living in the present moment, or “not thinking,” is kind of a scary one. For as long as I can remember I’ve prided myself on my intelligence or, in other words, my ability to think.

So when I consider a life lived completely in a present moment, there’s a part of me that starts to freak out. Without the constant narrative in my head, would I still be intelligent? Would I still be able to think clearly and solve problems? Wouldn’t I end up a simple-minded idiot?

Taking a step back, I realize that those fears are just the ego trying to preserve itself. But even on a more concrete level, my own experiences with mindfulness serve to dispel those fears.

Being present to the moment has only ever improved my ability to think critically. For the longest time, I’ve confused the narrative in my head with productive thinking. But when I really look at it, the majority of my thoughts only distract me from whatever task I’m working on.

I see this most clearly when speaking in front of the classroom. When “thinking” in the traditional sense, I often find it difficult to focus on what I’m saying. My mind focuses on things like how I’m being perceived or made up stories about how bored my students must be while listening to me. But when I’m present to the moment, the words just seem to flow out of me. I’m more engaging, wittier, and more responsive to the needs of my students. In other words, I’m thinking a lot more clearly.

So I guess the paradox of mindfulness is that “not thinking” actually improves your ability to think. This is something I really want to keep in mind during those times when mindfulness seems a little too daunting.

Note: Some might not consider this accurate, but in this post  I equate the terms “mindfulness” and “being present.” 

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